In an ever-changing industry roiled by uncertainty, it makes sense to stay flexible and be ready to change your plans. Kati Pérez learned this lesson first-hand when an application she submitted through a nonprofit she worked with landed her on the set of a critically-acclaimed show and opened up a path to membership in Local 600.
Prior to this break, Pérez thought she might continue her early work as a non-union documentary filmmaker, following the course of fellow female directors of photography who had forged their own paths. Instead, after 30 days as a camera intern on HBO’s Emmy Award-winning Succession, she bumped up to the classification of loader, continued her work on the show with new responsibilities, had a great experience and joined the union.
“Based on my resume, I knew taking a job as a camera intern would be a step back,” said Pérez, “but after a year of horribleness I thought, ‘Why not send your resume in? If you get rejected, it’s not for you.’ But then I finally got accepted, and it was a mind-altering experience.” She knew she would regret not jumping in and finding out where it might lead.
A native of the Bronx, Pérez cultivated her interest in filmmaking in high school. When the photography classes filled up, Pérez turned to camera and started learning more through an after-school documentary program. Through her connections with teachers and other artists, she began shadowing documentarians and worked with the Maysles Documentary Center. She honed her interests even more keenly while studying at Brooklyn College, although she was beginning to develop the perception that the camera department of a film set was a “boy’s club.”
“All the boys were saying, ‘Oh, I want to be the DP,’ and I was responding, ‘Oh, you don’t think I could be your AC or a DP?’” said Pérez. “I had to fight and show that I could do it, too.”
“Through it all, I was just trying to build something,” she continued. “I knew the union was near, but I couldn’t see a pathway into it.”
Toward the end of 2020, Reel Works, a nonprofit, contacted Pérez about an opportunity for a camera intern on an HBO show, part of its new “We Are Here For You” initiative. Succession’s producers (riffing on a popular catch phrase from one of the show’s episodes) developed the program to help people from underserved communities get a foothold in the entertainment industry.
Local 600 Associate National Executive Director Chaim Kantor took it one step further, working with the show and its camera department to transform the opening from an internship into a gateway to union membership. Based on initiatives developed in Los Angeles, after the initial training period the intern would be bumped up as an additional loader, join the union, and qualify for health insurance and benefits. Pérez worked on the show from January through May of 2021.
“She was a wonderful find, a real gem,” said Ethan Borsuk, an Eastern Region 1st AC who worked on Succession and was part of the team that hired Pérez. “She showed that she was really interested in furthering her career and getting hands-on learning. The job is not easy, and she worked really hard. She’s where she is now because of all her hard work.”
The gig on the hot show plus joining the union has certainly impressed Pérez’s friends and family.
“In Mexico, unions are super powerful, and it’s seen as almost being holy to be part of a union,” said Pérez. “My dad, who is from Mexico, was a huge fan of unions and one of the best things was being able to tell him I was a part of the union and seeing the joy and pride that came with it.”
While on Succession, Pérez bonded with fellow Loader Naima Noguera. She was pleased to find another woman of color both on the show and in the union.
“I think having another woman in the union, especially in the same position as I am, has been super helpful,” said Pérez. “Being queer and being a woman of color, I didn’t know that there was a community for queer people or people of color in the union. If the union can give people like me an opportunity through a program like this, it would really open up the union as a bigger place of diversity.”
At the conclusion of Succession, she booked her next gig as a loader on the show Power. As for the future, Pérez is keeping herself open.
“When I was younger, I used to say, ‘I’m going to be the most amazing woman DP. I’m going to have Spanish-speaking sets.’ Now I just kind of want to take it day by day and see where I end up,” Pérez said. “Maybe I’ll end up being that amazing DP or maybe I’ll still be a loader. It feels like there’s honor in every position.”